Archive for December, 2008

A Long December

December 31, 2008


This is the park near my home where I take my daily walk – as beautiful in its way as Hyde Park in Leeds and the Vondelpark in the Dam. My New Year’s resolutions: get healthy and get back to work. And keep writing. If you’ve come this far, or if you’ve just joined us, thank you. Happy new year, and long days pleasant nights.

Conservative beserkers

December 31, 2008

Now what is this about? Patrick Ness has said that his book has been labelled a health hazard by the Daily Mail:

Specifically, the Mail has said that books for teenagers such as my The Knife of Never Letting Go are ‘so violent they need a health warning’, according to Dr Rona Tutt. That Dr Tutt – about whose name I decline to make a single joke – never actually says this is beside the point for the Mail, which typically loads the article with suggestive language to induce the moral outrage that one imagines its readers have come to expect, nay, demand. It even provides the usual out-of-context excerpt from my book to prove their point.

The link to the ‘health hazard’ piece doesn’t work but Ness does provide one to another revealing Mail piece:

When Amanda Craig, chair of judges for this year’s Booktrust Teenage Prize (which I won), wrote a sensible commentary in the Mail about the perceived violence in the books up for the prize, it was accompanied not by photos of the shortlist, but with a recreation of the time Craig’s house was robbed by hoodies. I’m not making this up.

It’s true – we get ten paras on Craig’s experience of youth crime before she finally gets round to discussing the novels she was appointed to judge.

Being a victim of crime is no fun at all – my house was hit several times when I was a kid, so I know – but Craig’s article serves to highlight the extent that conservatives personalise issues of crime, inflating anecdotal evidence to obscure the big picture. Ness is right to suggest that underlying this is a basic fear of the young, perhaps an envy of the young.

The British right is known for its frequent beserkers on crime, immigration, home ownership and of course political correctness, but it seems that the Mail indulges in its own form of PC by declaring certain books a ‘health hazard’, simply because they acknowledge the existence of knives, and of violence.

What makes this especially silly is that Patrick Ness doesn’t write that well about violence – The Knife of Never Letting Go is moving, tender and absorbing, but whenever there’s violent action Ness’s prose falls back into tame one-sentence paras, ending with a dash in a poor attempt to communicate tension.

And of course this is part of a Paul Dacre agenda to turn the clock back to some prelapsian version of British innocence that, naturally, never existed in the first place. Remember, we used to send kids down mines for ten hours a day.

The Mail doesn’t always get it wrong. There are plenty of scum teenagers on the streets. But they’re not scum teenagers because they read The Knife of Never Letting Go. They think the whole idea of reading and study is laughable and they’ll attack kids who carry books around.

Naturally a condemnation from the philistine is better than praise from the cognoscenti. Yet if more people read from an early age – and it could be anything, from Enid Blyton to the Marquis de Sade – the streets would only get safer.


(Thanks to Hak Mao for the image)

More set and setting

December 28, 2008

In today’s paper Kate Kellaway has attempted to map literary Britain – ‘to try and get an idea, however sketchy, of where novelists are setting their novels, which parts of Britain are most popular and which least.’

Imagine an American critic doing the same thing. I think he or she would find a continent swamped in letters. It’s natural that US novelists have been drawn to the great flashpoints of New York and Los Angeles (just as it’s natural for people here to write about London) but our American critic would also count writers who have walked less beaten roads: Stephen King (Maine) Donna Tartt (Vermont and Mississippi) Carl Hiaasen (South Florida) Annie Proulx (Wyoming) Upton Sinclair (Illinois) and William Styron (Virginia).

By contrast, Kellaway’s map is almost a wasteland. There are vast swathes of this country that are simply not recognised by contemporary fiction. The conventional wisdom goes that most British fiction is set in London. Conventional wisdom needs to be more specific: most British fiction is set in North London. The author Blake Morrison, who lives in South London, ‘describes friends from north London arriving at his door sweating and angry – as if they had crossed continents”.

Morrison got a lot of attention recently when he published a novel defiantly titled South of the River and set ‘in Brockley, behind Lewisham and Peckham.’ In Britain’s parochial world of letters, this represented a revolutionary broadening of the literary landscape. When Joolz Denby was nominated for the Orange Prize she was called up by a metropolitan journo. He wanted to do an interview, and could he come round? Denby said it might be a long trip, as she lived in Bradford. The reporter asked: ‘Where’s that in London?’

For the novelist outside the capital there are three options. You can be from the Cotswolds and write about wife swapping among the horsey set. You can be from Scotland or Ireland and cash in on the romantic musk that still enshrouds anything Celtic in the parochial mind. Or you can be a loudmouth Northern sentimentalist.

During the 1990s we saw a wave of talented Scottish novelists hit the critical big time – James Kelman and Christopher Brookmyre from Glasgow, Oban’s Alan Warner, and Edinburgh’s Irvine Welsh. The latter of these has mapped out his home city as comprehensively as Dickens mapped out London. The last time I was in Edinburgh I could actually navigate around by remembering passages from Irvine Welsh novels.

Dickens said this of Upton Sinclair:

In his research and interviews he was able to accumulate masses of clear information not only on the workplace and living conditions but also about machinery, transportation, profit margins, sewage, hygiene, prisons, the courts, the hospitals, the political clubs – all the institutions needed to keep a modern city running. He shows not only how the meat industry and the steel industry operate but also how the machinery of power is greased, how the system of graft and patronage functions, how the bosses, the politicians, the contractors, the criminals and the police work hand in glove.

Irvine Welsh was a critical hit until around 1996 when his novels started to earn him major sales success as well as plaudits. Then he was written off. Literary Britain likes its working-class regional writers – as long as they know their place.

I love the North and I love writing about the North. My fiction is aggressively grounded in places I’ve known. I write mainly about Manchester and Salford – I’ve come to appreciate the difference between the Mancunian and the Salfordian – and also Sheffield, and Leeds, which has a magic that is impossible to describe but which everyone who has lived there agrees exists. These are great cities with loads of material for the aspiring writer.

But I knew that if I wanted to write realistically about the North I would have to confront the fact that so many intelligent and creative people wanted to get out of the region and move to the capital. This mass migration south is rarely mentioned by Northern sentimentalists such as Peter Kay, Ian MacMillan and Philip Hensher, who are happy to promote a provincial, anti-intellectual environment that they have long escaped.

Drifting, drinking and temping in Leeds, I met tons of would-be writers, musicians, DJs and artists who couldn’t wait to move down to London. You could dismiss this as social climbing snobbery – but once you’d heard their stories of the evil, curdled places they grew up in, you’d not only wish these seekers luck but lend them money towards their deposits. Because let’s face it, there are loads of places in the UK that you would be crazy to want to live in.

Any place is artistic if there’s an artist working there, said T S Garp, and you can get a good, sometimes a great novel, from the most godforsaken cowtown. Yet there’s a problem for the novelist who writes realistically about place. Kellaway reminds us of the fate of Monica Ali, whose Brick Lane ‘offended the Bangladeshi community – she received an 18-page letter from the Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council, representing 500,000 people, about the ‘shameful’ way she described their community.’

It’s not just religious sensibilities. Britain is supposed to be the land of the stiff upper lip – if only! Now the national character is marked by a visceral oversensitivity. How else do you explain the overreaction of Stockport Council to The Idler’s book of Crap Towns, which listed Stockport as number twelve? This light-hearted comedy book merited a thundering response from council leader Mark Hunter, who said that:

Everyone is entitled to an opinion but most residents of Stockport say they are happy here. We happen to be a national leader in recycling and we would be very willing to deal with all the left over copies of this obscure publication.

I’ve worked in the area and I can tell you that The Idler’s portrayal of Stockport was one hundred per cent accurate – the 192 route is just as bad as the magazine said it is. Hunter’s quote merely illustrates that a sense of humour and a realistic outlook are just two of the attributes that Stockport’s civic leaders do not possess.

But my point is that this was one page in a comedy book. What would be the reaction if someone wrote a bestselling novel about Stockport as it really is? The guy would probably be hung in Grand Central.

The result of this oversensitivity is that more fiction is going to be written as it is now: so vague in sense of place that it could be set in limbo.

Anyway, one of my future projects is a novel set in London and I feel I need to live there before I can write about the city. Moving to London requires health and money: they tell me rental rates are going through the floor. Now, if I could just get over the Condition…


Obama versus the prohibitionists

December 28, 2008

There was always going to be a disillusionment among the President-elect’s leftwing backers. After all, he is going to pile more troops into Afghanistan (what?) and he is supportive of the state of Israel (noooo!)

But there’s something even more unforgiveable about the guy from Illinois.

Via Norm, Christopher Caldwell explains that: ‘The attention paid to Mr Obama’s relationship with cigarettes is evidence of a pathology – and not on the part of the president-elect.’

Evidence of the pathology can be seen in this news story:

‘It’s a wonderful opportunity,’ says Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based group that seeks to prevent smoking among young people. ‘The president-elect is in a position to help people understand that it’s difficult to quit, and to encourage the 43 million adult Americans who smoke to join him in his efforts.’

Sure Cheryl – it’s not like Obama will have anything else to do, right?

And this is John Gibson from the hilarious Fox News:

Sure he’s young, sure he’s charismatic, but what do we really know about Barack Obama? And what does he really stand for? Obama is the kind of presidential hopeful who appeals to the masses. He portrays himself as a political moderate, but he’s much more liberal than he says he is. And his team works overtime trying to hide Obama’s dirty little secret. He is — get this — a cigarette smoker. The point is: What else do we not know about Barack Obama?

Back to Caldwell:

The TV journalist Tom Brokaw recently closed an interview with Mr Obama by asking him if he had quit smoking. Mr Brokaw wanted to know, since ‘the White House is a no-smoking zone’. Whether it is or is not is a tricky constitutional question. The White House has two functions. On one hand it is a government building. Mr Brokaw may well be right that it is, as such, covered by some intemperate smoking regulation. But it is also the living quarters of Mr Obama, citizen, during the time he is president. There is no reason that getting elected president should make one less entitled to privacy in one’s home. It is not always easy to delineate clearly between personal and governmental activities, but smoking is unambiguously a personal one. The rules ought to be whatever Mr Obama says they are. Once you mix up the body personal and the body politic the way Mr Brokaw does, you lose sight of why the president should enjoy any right to privacy, or any personal freedom, whatsoever. If the people feel reassured by seeing their president grovel before taking power, then grovel he must. This was the attitude in some of the negative letters the Washington Post received when columnist Michael Kinsley dared to suggest that anti-smokers should leave the president-elect alone. ‘He needs to make this sacrifice,’ wrote one correspondent unhappy with Mr Obama. What odd language. Did the US elect a president or a priest?


Keeping it chopped out

December 25, 2008

At about three o’clock today I was enjoying my mum’s amazing turkey dinner, washed down with a bottle of red wine.

So I’m afraid I missed Channel 4’s Alternative Christmas Message, given this year by… the theocratic dictator President Ahmadinejad.

Apparently Iran’s fanatical tyrant said that ‘the world is in its current predicament because’ – surprise sur-fucking-prise – ‘people have lost spiritual faith.’

I suspect that this astonishingly tasteless decision occurred at about 3am and was chemically induced.

As Peter Tatchell said:

Channel Four is aiding and abetting a tyrant. President Ahmadinejad is a torturer and a murderer. His regime executes children, journalists, Sunni Muslims, gay people, political activists and ethnic minorities. This is the equivalent of giving Robert Mugabe a prime-time television slot to promote his propaganda. It is an insult to more than 100,000 Iranian dissidents who have been slaughtered since the Islamic fundamentalists seized power in 1979.

I know, free speech and all, but do we really want to extend this fucker’s propaganda range?

There’s also a real kind of attention-seeking, Nathan Barley quality about the whole thing.

As Tim Allon says in the Harry’s Place comments: ‘This is the kind of stuff you do to piss off your parents. You’re meant to grow out of it by the time you run a TV channel.’

I wonder what Iranian blogger Azarmehr thinks of this. Not much, as it turns out.

I am so pissed off, I am so livid at the incompetency and lunacy of this Western media, I want to get hold of one of these snobby condescending fartbag journalists, editors and media bosses and pulp them to the wall. Channel 4 has invited President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad not for a debate, not for an interview, but to give an ‘alternative’ Christmas message!

Who will they invite next? Kim-il-Jong? Mugabe? This is rubbing salt on the wounds of all those jailed journalists in Iran, this is an insult to the family of murdered photo-journalist, Zahra Kazemi, this is giving platform to a regime which is persecuting Christian converts in Iran, to a regime which is persecuting religious minorities.



‘Right, we should put this bigoted fundamentalist dictator on the telly… have him doing like an alternative Queen’s Speech, yeah… well mentalist…’

Update: Courtesy of Bad News Wade in the Shiraz comments here are some video responses.

Further update: Jim D has noticed this leader comment in the Independent:

For once, Channel 4’s ‘alternative’ message – given this year by the president of Iran – was more on message than off. If Mahmoud Ahmedinejad can’t find much worse to say about the state of the Western world than our own church leaders, perhaps there is hope for global understanding after all.

Jesus motherfucking Christ.

You Can Go Home Again

December 23, 2008


I’ve been reading The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness – it’s a fantastic book and should never have been labelled young adult fiction.

The action begins in a small town where everyone can hear each other’s thoughts. The town I grew up in is a little like that. The comparison most people draw is The League of Gentlemen, and indeed much of the series was filmed near here. If you’re in Greater Manchester see if you can guess which little town I mean.

Anyway I’m back, I made it back, in a car for the first time in six months. It was hellish scary but not as much as I thought it would be. Think about the reaction your cat has when you drive it to the vet – that’s the Condition.

I was planning to get drunk before getting in the car but my therapist warned against this. She was right – no ordeal is as bad as you think it will be, and every nightmare ends sooner or later.

Now I’m here for a week. I’m not sure how much will be written on this blog because it’s the usual family stuff and piss-up that lasts for several days. And then a new year in which I’m going to make a real effort to get sane. As Roland Deschain said: I’ve come to the head of the last trail, and I need not travel it alone… Mayhap there’s still enough to fill my basket.

Killing the cliche

December 22, 2008

If this doesn’t do it nothing will.

In the last few years secular liberals have been uncompromising in what they say about religion, and the targets of their criticism have squealed and complained as loudly as if they felt real flames licking round their feet. The churches answered criticism in the past with murder; if they still had the upper hand would they now restrict themselves to their critics’ choice of weapon – words?

Let us look at some comparisons. In Afghanistan the Taliban stop girls going to school, beat up women who show a millimeter of skin, ban music, kill gays, and in general force their choice of life and belief on everyone, thus illustrating the less charming aspects of enforced observance of religious orthodoxy under which most of humanity has suffered for most of history. By comparison, secular liberals of Europe and North America say that they think religion is a load of nonsense and that religious folk should keep their fantasies to themselves. Some comparison, eh? Some jihad! Its effectiveness, though, is a sign of insecurity among the faithful. Mark Twain defined faith as ‘believing what you know ain’t so’, and the level of insecurity among the faithful when criticised suggests that almost all of them really agree.

Although I don’t remember when she said it, Ophelia pointed out that the cliche that won’t die is not only a fatuous moral equivalence but also an attempted transfer of complicity: the cleric avoids having to defend the actual, provable intolerance of his traditions by claiming that they are mirrored in abstract in the secular heart. It’s the vampire forcing his victim to suck his blood: you are implicated and must sink or swim with me.

But read the rest of A C Grayling’s refreshing and apologetic defence of basic values.

Secularists in the west say to the apologists of the religions: your beliefs are your choice, so take your place in the queue. They also say: you’ve had it your own way for a very long time – and committed a lot of crimes in the process – and you still fancy yourself entitled, but you aren’t. You don’t smell too good at times, so don’t try to tell me what I can read, see on TV, do in my private time, think or say. In fact, keep your sticky fingers off my life. Believe what you like but don’t expect me to admire or excuse you because of it: rather the contrary, given the fairy-stories in question. And when you are a danger to the lives and liberties of others, which alas is too frequently the wont of your ilk, we will speak out against you as loudly, persistently, and uncompromisingly as we can.

Temporarily unavailable

December 22, 2008


I’ve used this blog in the past to highlight the problem of temporary and agency workers: i.e. people who do basically the same jobs as permanent or contract employees, but draw less pay and enjoy fewer employment rights, simply because they happen to be employed through an intermediary.

The media doesn’t seem that interested in the issue although the agency workers do have some good Labour politicians on their side.

So how are they dealing with the credit crunch?

According to Felicity Lawrence, the answer is: not well.

At the time of the last recession agency working was largely confined to seasonal jobs in food, agriculture and construction. Now it is endemic across the whole economy from building sites to care homes, from food factories to car factories, from steelworks to the communications industry.

To show how far this casualisation had spread, in 2007 Amicus (now part of Unite the union) pointed to a few examples: the BMW factory in Birmingham where two-thirds of the 700 shop floor workers were local agency staff and the Cowley works where 1,200 out of 4,700 workers were from agencies; Corus, the steel company, between 5,000 and 10,000 of the 23,500 workers around the country have been agency workers at various points in time; and BT has had periods when it has employed about 10,000 agency workers.

The benefits and cost savings of this casualisation have fallen to business in the last decade, but as so often it will be the state that picks up the tab of the flexible labour market now.

But I like to stay positive. Since I last wrote about the issue there has been some kind of compromise agreement hammered out – it’s not good enough, but temps will have more rights than they did. And this isn’t over.

Another reason to look on the bright side is that recruitment consultants are affected by recession too.

Indeed, the Daily Mail reported this month that:

After months of insisting that it has not seen the worst effects of the recession, recruitment agency Michael Page International today put out the inevitable profit warning and said it is cutting 400 of its own workers.

Shares in the group, which have fallen from a high of nearly 600p last year, dived another 10 per cent today, off 18¼p at 174¾p.

Have a lean Christmas, arseholes!

Whitewashing the Taliban

December 21, 2008

From the people who brought you John Molyneux there is another long, tedious and self-regarding article in the International Socialism journal, this time about Afghanistan. You can guess what it will say, these people have been using the same arguments for so long they can do them in their sleep, but here’s a summary by the author Jonathan Neale:

In every country in Europe majorities in opinion polls are against participation in the Afghan war. Yet the media still present it as a good war. Iraq, they now admit, was a crime or wrong or maybe just a mistake. But Afghanistan is a war on terrorists, we are told; on fanatics, jihadis, sexists, savages; on people who are not ‘modern’ and therefore deserve to die.

Yes, it’s those evil Western imperialists forcing secular democracy upon the noble, untutored tribesmen. Indeed the first part of Neale’s article consists of nostalgic reminisciences of his time in Afghanistan doing ‘two years of fieldwork as an anthropologist from 1971 to 1973’.

[T]he people I knew best were poor pastoralists who had lost their flocks and now made yoghurt. Their lives were not unrepresentative. Most of them got two sets of adult clothes in their lives—one when they first grew up and one when they married. A bicycle was a sign of moderate wealth. Out of 30 households in the camp, three were wealthy enough to afford to offer me a fried egg in hospitality. And they reminded me of it: ‘You ate his egg,’ they said to me. Out of 30 households, 29 ate meat once a year. An average household had one teapot and one cup.

How absolutely darling. I shall certainly make Shah-era Afghanistan the choice for my next gap year.

There’s also this bizarre bit of nostalgia:

When I lived in rural Afghanistan in the 1970s I had a short, trimmed beard. Every other man with a beard was either a white haired elder or a mullah, and all of them trimmed their beards neat and short. I was regularly ridiculed in public for my beard, which was immodest and un-Islamic, and it would have been quite unacceptable to grow it long.

Which proves… er… what exactly?

As you’d expect from this journal Neale concludes that ‘there are no easy outcomes for Afghans in this situation, but the best one is a victory for the resistance.’ That ‘resistance’ being the Taliban, this means that Neale’s main task here is to make the Taliban look good, or at least find diverting explanations for its behaviour.

So we’re told that the Taliban ‘came into being in 1994 under the patronage of the ISI in Pakistan, and with the quiet support of the US’ – so it’s all the fault of the West anyway. The word Taliban just means ‘the students’ and its leadership consists of ‘men with limited formal education’ who ‘had never attended university and did not come from big landowning families’ – good old working class lads, like you.

‘Crucially,’ Neale tells us, ‘the Taliban promised that their leaders and soldiers would not molest boys and girls as the mujahedin commanders had often done.’ Which was nice of them. And while the public executions in football stadia were ‘barbaric’ they were also ‘welcome to many Afghans’. Well, the death penalty may be acceptable to much of the UK public, although I doubt that Neale wants to introduce it over here.

During the 2004 elections the Taliban ‘had the sense not to attack any of the voters at polling stations—people would have been furious.’ Except that they killed election workers, threatened all eighteen presidential candidates with assassination and launched a massive intimidation campaign against potential voters.

Yet for Neale one of the Taliban’s ‘great strengths’ is that ‘they do not engage in bomb attacks against Afghan civilians’ – but they don’t mind shooting them, as in Khandahar two months ago when Taliban killers gunned down twenty-five Afghan civilians, including a child. Still, ‘on the rare occasions when these happen the Taliban issue a public statement denying involvement.’ So that’s alright then.

Indeed, the Taliban have ‘learned, changed their strategy and displayed considerable political intelligence.’ While they banned music and videos when they were in power, now they ‘produce propaganda videos and cassettes of Taliban music.’ Big changes, eh? It’s like Scrooge after the spirits had finished with him.

Next Neale deals with the quislings: regrettably, ‘almost all the feminists have collaborated with the occupation, or the NGOs or Karzai’s government. So have most former Communists, the returned Afghan-Americans, the ‘modernisers’ and the ‘secular’ liberals.’ I wonder why. Could it be because they want a fledgeling democracy over fascist theocracy? What sellouts!

Edmund Standing has already had a go at this and he makes this point:

Yet again, the SWP cannot understand that Islamists are not just resisting the presence of foreign troops; they are resisting democracy, human rights, and, specifically and with most venom, the rights of women and children.

Only today I was talking to a teenage Afghan immigrant whose father was murdered by the Taliban. Try telling him that you want ‘victory for the resistance’, when you mean the same bastards who killed his dad.

To which Ophelia Benson adds:

Well it’s physically impossible for them not to understand that, because it’s physically impossible for them to be unaware of all the myriad news reports of the Taliban burning down schools that admit girls, throwing acid on schoolgirls (that was just last week), murdering teachers in front of their students, etc etc etc. They do understand it, the shits, they just don’t object.

Neale’s piece of propaganda for a fascist movement is something that would have been shocking six or seven years back, but wouldn’t raise an eyebrow now. Yet in light of recent debates as to whether the SWP can be considered a totalitarian party I think that Jonathan Neale has done a real service in reminding us exactly what kind of scum they are and how far they have gone from anything that could be considered remotely left wing.


Stranger in the shadows

December 21, 2008


Hey Max, how’s it going? Read this wicked book recently – it’s called The Jigsaw Man (produces it and hands it over). It’s by this guy, Paul Britton, he’s like a psychologist and he gets into the heads of serial killers so’s he can catch them. It’s really good.


What about Rachel Nickell?


The woman who was killed on Wimbledon Common, back in ’92?


That’s her. Paul Britton was the psychologist in that case.


Yeah, and he caught the guy who did it, that Colin Stagg –


Well, no. Fact is, there was no evidence against Stagg apart from the fact that he matched Britton’s offender profile.


Offender profiling… is that where you make up a psychological profile of the killer and then find someone who matches the profile?


That’s it exactly. Britton made up a profile of a weird, lonely outsider type. The problem he had was that there are loads of weird, lonely outsiders in the country, and few of them are murderers. Stagg fit the profile but then so did hundreds of other guys.


So why did the police arrest Colin Stagg?


Because Britton encouraged them to do a honeytrap operation in which a female police officer would write to Stagg posing as a potential lover and saying things like: ‘[M]y fantasies hold no bounds and my imagination runs riot. If only you had done the Wimbledon Common murder, if only you had killed her, it would be all right’.


And what did Stagg say?


He just said: ‘I’m terribly sorry, but I haven’t.’


And they still charged him?


Yeah, and he was on remand for over a year.


Fuck. (Pause, looks at book) Well I’ve not seen any mention of that in here.

The above is a composite of several conversations I’ve had in pubs – it’s astonishing how many people love celebrity psychologist Paul Britton. Since those conversations took place Robert Napper has been named by DNA evidence as Nickell’s killer. As Nick Cohen says, when you condemn an innocent man you acquit a guilty one, and the perception that Stagg was the culprit left Napper free to kill and rape until he was sentenced indefinitely to Broadmoor in 1995 for murdering a woman in her twenties and her young daughter. Although Stagg sought and received an apology and compensation, he has never had a bad word to say about the police.

Thomas Harris wrote a fantastic novel, Red Dragon, about a consultant FBI agent with a troubling ability to see through his suspects’ eyes. But in the real world you need cold hard evidence rather than psychological conjecture. Cohen saw through Britton’s bullshit straight away and there’s a great analysis of the case in his first collection, Cruel Brittania. Today he points out that Britton had reduced offender profiling to something like phrenology:

Britton would never have impressed detectives if he had said that Stagg was a bit of a weirdo. When he dressed up that same thought in psychological language and talked of ‘deviant interests’ and ‘sexual dysfunctions’, he sounded fatally convincing.

I think this case taps into a deep popular distrust of the lone individual. A man who reads alone in a pub is a freak. But a man who puts on a Ben Sherman shirt and rampages through town with twelve other morons is normal. And this when statistically you’re more likely to be killed by someone you know than someone you don’t. And yet we fear above all others the stranger in the shadows.